From Rural Poverty to Rural Prosperity: A Lesson in Quilting

Kathleen Belanger, Challenges for Human Services columnistby Kathleen Belanger

Sometimes we talk of poverty as if it were a tangible item—a stain, an illness, or a backpack filled with burdens. We think about programs to relieve that burden—cures for poverty, wars on poverty.

In reality, poverty is probably more like missing pieces in the quilt of well-being and prosperity that should surround our children and families. Children and families need food and safe homes. They need nourishment for the mind—good schools and teachers, books, libraries, and Internet access to find information. They need accessible health care in or near their own communities, and the means to access more specialized care in other communities when necessary. They need people to support them and give them good advice, as well as to help them make choices, learn from mistakes and connect with other resources. They need dreams and hopes to fill their spirits. They need independence, but also interdependence in community, including the ability to help others. And they need jobs—employment to provide the food, housing, safety, independence and well-being to sustain a family. These are pieces that make the fabric of well-being and prosperity.

Many of us live in areas where these resources are readily available. But many families, particularly rural families, do not. According to the Economic Research Service, while 27% of urban African-American families are poor, an additional 10%, or 37% of African-American rural families, live in poverty. More than half (56%) of female-headed rural households with children are poor (compared with 46.5% for their urban counterparts), and almost one-third (30.3%) of all rural children under the age of six are poor, compared with 23.9% of urban children. More than one in four, or 27.6%, of all rural children are poor.

In other words, almost a third of all rural young children and more than a fourth of all rural children are missing large pieces of the quilt of well-being and prosperity. This puts them at risk of poor outcomes and public dependence as adults. They are missing important pieces of the quilt that makes a community strong: education, health, employment and human services.

Rural Education

Rural schools have long been the centerpiece of rural communities, particularly the smallest communities. And yet 50 rural schools in Maine alone have closed their doors since 1996. In fact, rural schools face so much pressure to consolidate that The Rural School and Community Trust has its own Consolidation Fight-Back Toolkit. The rural school provides not only quality education with often better student outcomes, but is a key rural employer, a repository and conduit of community values and history, a gathering point for recreation, and a central point in the quilt of well-being and prosperity.

Rural Health

According to the National Rural Health Association, when rural hospitals close, health suffers, sometimes catastrophically, as depicted by the press covering recent deaths attributed to rural hospital closures. But rural hospitals provide more than critical care. They increase the overall presence of health care professionals, access to doctors, and earlier detection and treatment of disease. In addition, when rural hospitals close, the economy shrinks. The hospital is an excellent employer, with a range of salaries, stable positions, and opportunity. Hospitals encourage higher education, support other human services in the community, and often serve as the anchor for hospice services, health fairs, and rural health internships. Finally, rural hospitals also infuse funds from the federal government (Medicare dollars, etc.), providing further financial stability. Rural hospitals, by providing healthcare and economic opportunity, are another critical piece of the fabric of rural well-being and prosperity.

Rural Employment

Rural America needs jobs. According to Rural America at a Glance: 2014 Edition, while urban employment has recovered from the 2007 recession, rural employment has not, and rural residents are much more likely than urban ones to be receiving Social Security Disability Insurance. At the same time, payment for work is substantially lower. Employment also relates to family structures, modeling of workforce participation, and to self-esteem and independence. Work helps provide a positive self image, increases in knowledge and skills, and family stability. Work connects us to others and challenges us to solve problems. Finally, without work, people have to struggle to survive in other ways—ways that may not contribute to society, such as relying on government dependence, or harmful survival strategies, including crime. Employment is an essential part of the fabric of rural communities.

Rural Human Services

Human services, the assistance children and families need when they face barriers or challenges beyond their own capacities, brings together health, education and employment in communities. It allows those without access to find access to all three, and it helps those in crisis to find their own strengths and the strengths in their families and communities. While not the major pieces of material in the quilt, rural human services are perhaps the connecting strips and the stitching that pulls the material together. However, human services have also been centralized over the past several years. Social security offices in rural areas have closed, and with them goes not only the service they provided but the quality stable jobs. Rural post offices have closed, and are continuing to close. State jobs continue to decline, and with them services, information, connections, and employment. There are many counties with no social services provided, no child welfare specialist, no employment office, no personnel to assist with applications for social services assistance.

Repairing the Quilt of Well-being

Looking for more information about the factors that impact children’s health and well-being? Check out RHIhub’s Social Determinants of Health for Rural People topic guide.

Valuing rural children and families requires looking beyond each sector’s economic issues to view the losses and gains by the whole community and all those contributing to it. Our rural schools could not only be a center for elementary education, but could also be satellite sites for college, decreasing the gap between rural and urban college attainment. Rural hospitals, clinics, and emergency services stabilize the rural economy, bringing higher salaried providers into small towns, helping them to prosper. The essence of preserving small towns requires filling the gaps of unemployment by creating and maintaining jobs. The Children’s Defense Fund suggests strategies to reduce child poverty such as creating subsidized jobs for those who are unemployed or underemployed, providing child care subsidies to families below 150% of poverty, and increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit for lower income families with children. Repairing the state and federal employment infrastructure would help increase employment, probably decrease federal dependence in other programs, and provide income for struggling families and communities. Finally, creating stable human service positions in rural communities would help hold the fabric together, be a conduit for the disproportionately smaller philanthropic dollars invested in rural communities, and maximize volunteer participation.

Locally provided education, health, and employment —connected and enhanced by human services—can replace the gaping holes of poverty with the warm quilt of well-being and prosperity for our children and families, a worthy investment in the country’s future.

Kathleen Belanger, Ph.D., is Professor of Social Work at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, and is a member of the RUPRI Human Services Panel, and recipient of CWLA’s Champion for Children award in 2005 for her work in rural child welfare. Belanger has published and presented on rural human services issues in a variety of publications and forums. In addition, she has worked for more than 20 years with rural communities, where she has helped found several non-profit organizations and advocated for rural resources.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Rural Health Information Hub.